If voters agree this September, Billings School District 2 will spend $12 million on fixing roofs, replacing windows and updating heating systems and fire alarms on the majority of its school buildings.
The $12 million is a combination of two federal, interest-free bonds for which the district is eligible. The projects were chosen specifically to address avoiding “future catastrophic damage,” maximizing utility savings and improving the learning environment for students at all its buildings across the city.
The district currently faces $123 million in deferred maintenance, according to new figures released by the district earlier this month.
The completed projects — which include replacing the 70-year-old boiler at Senior High, replacing the roofs at 10 different schools and replacing windows at seven schools — would save the district $94,435 a year in energy costs, said Rich Whitney, the district’s facilities director.
“This is a very good selection of projects,” said Trustee Joel Guthals. “I think this analysis is very thoughtful.”
Skyview High, which sustained $1.3 million in damage to its roof in last week’s tornado, was initially placed on the list. But Whitney told the board Monday that insurance may cover the entire cost for replacing the roof.
If that happens, the board will remove the Skyview roof from its list of projects and replace it with auditorium upgrades at its three high schools and roof repair for the locker rooms at Daylis Stadium.
It took the board about an hour at the start of its special meeting Monday to decide specifically which bonds it would go after and, in general, on what it would spend the money.
The bonds, part of a program that uses federal stimulus money, would raise property taxes for Billings landowners for the next 16 years.
Under the program, the federal government would pay the interest on the loan and the district would pay back the principal. Adding the interest, the total amount of the loan would equal about $16 million.
Helping reduce the district’s debt load is a sinking fund that would accompany the bond and collect money over the 16 years. That money will then go toward paying back the loan. There’s also a possibility of state assistance to help the district pay back the bond.
With the addition of the sinking fund and the state help, trustees are hopeful that of the total $16 million borrowed, the district — and ultimately taxpayers — will have to pay back only roughly $6 million.
Trustee Mary Jo Fox advocated going after a third bond, known as a Build America Bond, to enable the district to construct a school on the far west side of the city. Many of the trustees demurred, saying the district will be lucky just to get the two bonds to pass, and that a third bond on the ballot would simply scare voters away.
“I don’t think there’s a Chinaman’s chance in hell we can get more than $12 million from voters,” said Trustee Connie Wardell. “There’s no advantage to taking on a Build America Bond.”
Fox disagreed, saying voters should at least have the option. “We’re giving them the opportunity to say now or later,” she said.
Teresa Stroebe, who represents the Lockwood area on the board, advocated building a high school in Lockwood with the funds. At the very least, she said, the board should be using money from the bond for new building projects, not repairing existing buildings.
The district should create a building reserve fund for deferred maintenance, she said.
Guthals explained that the district tried to go after a building reserve mill levy five years ago and was unsuccessful in convincing voters to approve it.
Trustees are more hopeful this year that voters will approve these two new bonds because the board has laid out specific, detailed accounts on what the bond money will be spent. Also, with the state and federal help, local taxpayers would have to pay back only a third of the loan.
However, trustees are still leery.
A little over a month ago, voters approved two of three mill levies worth $1.9 million, one of which, a technology levy for the high schools, passed with a scant 10 votes after a petition forced a recount.
Officials at the district worry that pursuing a bond so quickly after winning the two mill levies in May could erode hard-earned voter trust.
The board will meet again next week to give to the Yellowstone County elections office the final wording for the bonds as they will appear on the ballot. That’s due to the county by July 6.
Contact Rob Rogers at email@example.com or at 406-657-1231.